We have previously written on this blog about the protocol for conducting law enforcement searches. Generally speaking, for a search to be considered legal, police must obtain a search warrant, issued by a judge, based on probable cause that a crime has been committed. If police were allowed to search anyone at any time and for any reason, it would violate Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
There are exceptions to the need for a warrant, but even in those cases, officers must typically be able to justify the reason for the search (beyond vaguely claiming that someone “looked suspicious” or that the officer just had a hunch). Earlier this summer, an important ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court reinforced our Fourth Amendment protections when it held that a 2019 stop-and-frisk search was unlawful.
Officer acted on a hunch in a ‘high-crime area’
According to a news article, the incident occurred in Camden County one day in 2019. Police were patrolling and spotted three men standing and talking outside of a vacant house. The men walked away when officers came near, and the officers eventually stopped one of the men by blocking his path. They patted him down and allegedly discovered drugs and a handgun.
Later, the defendant’s attorney sought to suppress the evidence found during the search, arguing that both the stop and the search were illegal. In justifying his actions, the officer claimed that they were patrolling a “high-crime area” and he believed that the three men were using he abandoned house to sell drugs and weapons.
Highest state court holds that actions were unlawful
An appellate court had previously upheld the lawfulness of the search, but the state Supreme Court’s ruling reversed that decision. The majority opinion stated that although the officer had a hunch about the suspect’s actions, that hunch “did not amount to objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion for an investigatory stop.”
Why cases like this are important
Traditionally, law enforcement officers have been given a lot of leeway in how they justify warrantless searches. In fact, simply calling a location a high-crime area has been a successful justification in many cases.
But a law professor quoted in the article noted that the label of “high-crime area” is too often applied based on the racial composition of an area rather than actual crime statistics. And even if racial bias wasn’t a factor, most reasonable people could agree that simply being in an area known to have high crime rates provides no evidence that someone has committed a crime.
This case is also an example of why it is important to challenge how evidence was obtained. If a search is deemed illegal, as it eventually was in this case, any evidence obtained in that search can be suppressed. This means it cannot be used to convict someone of a crime. When critical evidence is prohibited, a conviction may become all but impossible.